Five Great UT Ideas

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This story is part of our "Eyes on Innovation" series, which explores UT's world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.


When Carl Deckard arrived at The University of Texas at Austin in 1980, no one expected the freshman would revolutionize the manufacturing world.

Four years later, when Deckard was starting graduate school in the Mechanical Engineering Department, he pitched a long-brewing idea to professor Joseph Beaman, hoping to see it come to life.

Vending Machine Lets Students Print in 3-D

Mechanical engineering professor Carolyn Seepersad and her students designed and built the Innovation Station, a 3-D printing machine now being used by students from across the campus.

Students create designs on a computer and then submit the plans online. When the machine begins printing, the student receives a text message saying the object is ready.

The Innovation Station uses a unique patent-pending process to move the 3-D object from the printer's building zone into a receptacle for retrieval.

Beaman and a team of researchers helped turn Deckard's dream into reality: They made and commercialized one of the first forms of 3-D printing, called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). More than 30 years later, SLS is still in use as a high-end tool for manufacturing airplane-engine parts and an array of other products.

SLS is just one of the profound ideas that has taken shape at UT, which routinely produces work and research with ramifications far beyond the Forty Acres. During the 2011-12 fiscal year alone, UT's Office of Technology Commercialization processed more than 160 invention disclosures and more than 200 patent applications and helped secure 41 U.S. and 39 foreign patents.

Here are five great ideas with UT roots that have helped make the world safer, healthier and a little bit more exciting.

Early 3-D Printing

What is it? Using a laser to combine layers of powder about the thickness of a single hair, the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) process allows manufacturers to create an array of complex shapes, typically from plastic.

A 1988 New York Times article explained how SLS works: "The designer, using a computer-aided design, or CAD program, creates the 3-D shape and stores its coordinates in the computer's memory. When the design is complete, the computer is commanded to fabricate the shape, much as one would command a computer to print a document."

The article quoted the then-UT System Chancellor Hans Mark as saying Deckard's invention "could do for manufacturing what Xerox did for printing."

Tell me more: When Deckard began using Selective Laser Sintering on campus, it marked the birth of the additive manufacturing industry. It was also a launching point for a team of university researchers working to push the invention to the next level like using new materials such as stronger plastics and metals while continuing commercialization of the technology to give manufacturers more options of how to print parts.

Selective Laser Sintering at The University of Texas at Austin

Kaiyi Jevons Jiang, a visiting researcher in the Mechanical Engineering Department, demonstrates an artist's design built by selective laser sintering at the Laboratory for Freeform Fabrication at the UT Austin campus. 

A Revolutionary Battery

 

What is it? You may not realize it, but you almost certainly have a lithium-ion battery in a gadget at home. In 1979, John Goodenough showed that by using lithium cobalt oxide as a cathode of a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, it would be possible to achieve a high density of stored energy with an anode other than metallic lithium. It was a revolutionary discovery that dramatically shaped the world of consumer electronics.

Tell me more: Goodenough joined UT's Mechanical Engineering Department in 1986 and has never stopped working to push the future of batteries in a more efficient and affordable direction, "kick-start[ing] [a] mobile revolution." The rechargeable batteries are used by millions of people around the world to power an array of consumer electronics, from cell phones and tablets to cameras and tools.

His well-known invention coupled with his ongoing research conducted at UT garnered him engineering's highest honor, the National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering, earlier this year. In 2011, the National Science Foundation named Goodenough a National Medal of Science Laureate, and The Japan Prize Foundation recognized Goodenough as the 17th Japan Prize Laureate in 2001.

John B. Goodenough

John Goodenough 

Safer Oxycontin

What is it? James McGinity, a professor in the College of Pharmacy, along with then-graduate student Feng Zhang (now an assistant professor of pharmaceutics), created a new type of OxyContin, a widely used and often abused painkiller, that makes the medication more difficult to abuse. McGinity and Zhang embedded OxyContin into a polymer so that it can only be released slowly as it goes through the stomach and the intestine. This makes OxyContin tamper-resistant and has allowed pain sufferers to obtain an effective drug that had been taken off the market.

Tell me more: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration touted the invention in a 2010 news release: "The reformulated OxyContin is intended to prevent the opioid medication from being cut, broken, chewed, crushed or dissolved to release more medication. The new formulation may be an improvement that may result in less risk of overdose due to tampering, and will likely result in less abuse by snorting or injection."

 Marsha Miller/UT Austin

Image credit: Marsha Miller/UT Austin 

Less Painful Glucose Monitoring

What is it? Chemical engineering professor Adam Heller established the field of electrical "wiring" of enzymes, which became the core technology of the FreeStyle Navigator system of Abbott Diabetes Care to continuously and accurately monitor subcutaneous glucose levels in diabetics. This system drastically reduced the amount of pain users feel when monitoring blood-sugar levels by allowing the sample to be taken not just from fingers but also from forearms. More than 1 billion units are produced each year.

Tell me more: Heller is a prolific inventor and researcher; he holds 215 U.S. patents and is the author of 261 publications. His work has led to accolades such as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2007), the Torbern Bergman Medal in Analytical Chemistry (2014), The University of Texas at Austin's Inventor of the Year award (2011) and numerous others.

Adam Heller

Adam Heller 

More Accessible Information

What is it? Ciaran Trace, assistant professor in the School of Information, and Luis Francisco-Revilla, research associate at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, created software for a large touch-screen, table-top computer called an Augmented Processing Table (APT). The APT helps archivists and curators to better access, share and process both physical and born-digital materials.

Tell me more: The invention garnered the first Archival Innovator Award from the Society of American Archivists in 2013, with the team's work being described as, "groundbreaking, overcoming professional and philosophical boundaries, embracing innovative ideas and emerging technology, and rethinking current standards and commonly-used models for arrangement and description in modern archives." Ultimately, APT Research Team's work will not only help people in the field of archival science follow best practices for processing but also will increase and enhance access to "reliable, accurate and trustworthy collections of information."

Augmented Processing Table

Augmented Processing Table 

UT a Top Patent-Producer

The National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association named The University of Texas System No. 5 on its annual list of the Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Utility Patents.

The University of Texas at Austin, the system's flagship institution, had 55 issued U.S. utility patents during the 2012-13 fiscal year.

UT ranked 20th in patents and 26th overall in the 2013 Center for World University Rankings, which scores the top 100 universities across the globe.

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